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RG18

NADAL-SCHWARTZMAN: THE PIVOT POINT BEFORE THE RAIN

Saqib Ali

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Mert Ertunga

If you follow sports, you are probably familiar with the types of phrases often used by pundits or commentators to describe masterpiece performances by a competing athlete or a team, the kinds that shock everyone and leave crowds speechless.

“In that one shining moment,” you will hear one commentator say. There is also “on that specific Sunday” or “for one sunny afternoon,” just to mention a few.

During a period of 101 minutes on Wednesday afternoon, Diego Schwartzman engineered a performance that deserved such accolades. He basically took on a tennis giant who built a substantial portion of his elite place in the history of tennis on the very court where their encounter took place and, “for one hour and 41 minutes under the cloudy skies of Paris,” stunned the world by outplaying the world number one.

Unfortunately, from Diego’s perspective, those phrases do not typically include asterisks or refer to interruptions. The asterisk here was that the match was not over. He led 6-4 3-2 with his serve to come. Then there was an interruption, caused by rain. Those phrases do not carry the conjunction “and,” either. For example, you will not hear anyone say, “in that one Saturday and the next day.” While Schwartzman did have that special kind of performance on Wednesday afternoon for 101 minutes, he also needed to reproduce it after the first rain delay, and again the next day. He did neither.

Dealing with rain delays has been a part of our sport for as long as it has existed. Players are well aware of it and prepare for the match with the possibility of a weather-related interruption in mind. Everyone knows there are no simple formulas to prepare for what one cannot predict, but one accepts its consequences. Having said that, it is not unusual that, historically, in some matches interrupted by rain, a player’s momentum can come to a screeching halt and that he/she can struggle to reclaim, once the match resumes, the mental edge he/she had over the opponent prior to the rain delay.

Tim Henman, in the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2001, had a lead of two sets to one and 2-1 in the fourth over Goran Ivanisevic when rain interrupted their match on that Friday. He was on a roll at the time, on the heels of a 30-minute-long sublime level of play that enabled him to win the third set 6-0 and had him poised to cross the finish line in the fourth. Two days later (there was another rain interruption on Saturday that carried the match into Sunday), after Goran won the match 6-3 in the fifth, the Croatian said, “God wants me to win. He sent the rain on Friday.”

That was before he went on to win the final on Monday against Patrick Rafter, thus earning the only major title of his career.

Link for that quote: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2001/jul/09/tennis.wimbledon2006

More recently, Rafa benefited from a similar rain break in the final of the Internazionali d’Italia in Rome, when play was stopped by rain with Zverev leading 3-1 in the final set, after winning nine of the previous 11 games. Nadal held serve after a short delay before rain came again to cause a longer delay. After the lengthier delay, a refreshed Nadal played his regular brand of tennis to pocket the final set 6-3 and take home the title.

Nadal imposed the same tariff on Schwartzman after the first rain delay on Wednesday. He came back and won three games in a row to go up 5-3 before the rain halted the match a second time at 30-15, for the rest of the day.

On Thursday, Rafa picked up where he left off after the last interruption. He won two quick points to wrap up the second set and dominated the third until 5-1, losing only four points in the five games he won. Schwartzman did play a bit better after that but never matched the level of intensity and aggressiveness he enjoyed the day before. He racked up too many errors while Nadal remained steady. Rafa did not perform at his highest level either, but he kept the ball deep enough to be able to direct most of the rallies. That was sufficient against the Thursday version of Diego.

But what about his Wednesday version? How did he build that initial lead?

The Argentine took everyone by surprise, including Rafa, by playing an extremely aggressive brand of tennis from the first point of the match. Granted, he had done the same thing in their fourth-round battle at the Australian Open and given the Spaniard all he could handle for four sets, but hardly anyone expected that he could pull off the same thing on Philippe Chatrier, where the current world number one has taken up residence for over a decade now – figuratively speaking.

Not only did Schwartzman come out firing again, but he was even more belligerent with his swing and more resolute in his stance on the court than in Melbourne. He nailed one shot after another, refusing to step back behind the baseline on many rallies, and kept Nadal running from side to side to retrieve balls. Some of the stats of the 73-minute-long first set sound like they come from a parallel universe.

– Diego produced 20 winners to Nadal’s four.

– He hit 11 forehand winners while Rafa, who has one of the best forehands in tennis, had only three.

– He held the edge over Rafa in the number of less-than-five-shot rallies won, 18 to 13. He tied Rafa in the number of between-five-and-eight-shot rallies won (11-11). But in the category of rallies with nine shots or more, it was again Schwartzman who led the count at 10-9.

– Schwartzman was returning so big that Nadal managed to win only 10 out of the 21 points he started with his first serve (48%).

In other words, for one set, Schwartzman was the better baseline player against the King of Clay in almost every aspect.

The second set began in the same vein that as the first. Everyone will remember the 3-2 score when the rain delay came, but in my opinion, Schwartzman’s big chance came when he led 2-1, serving, and had a 40-0 lead.

If you watch the last two points leading up to that point, you will see a rare version of Nadal, one who is looking to the ground between points and not showing much intensity in his expression. He missed two routine backhands that he would usually make even if he were sleeping with a fever of 105 degrees.

Schwartzman, for his part, was cooking. He hit 25 winners up to that point in the match (Rafa had 7) and was about to confirm his break lead with a love game to go up 3-1.

Then, inexplicably, he tried an ill-advised backhand drop shot at 40-0 and missed it wide. On the next point, he served wide and got a mid-court return from Rafa. Until that point, Diego nailed those shots – mostly for winners – every time he got the opportunity. There, he did not move in and take it on the rise from the inside of the court, opting to stay on the baseline and play it back conservatively crosscourt instead. Rafa hit it back crosscourt and Diego’s next forehand clipped the net and sailed out.

At 40-30, he served wide and Rafa’s crosscourt return landed short. Diego did step in, but instead of going for the flat winner to the open court, as he had been doing until then, he hit a conservative backhand that sailed out.

He played three points that were completely out of character with what he had done until then, all three ending with his unforced errors at a moment in the match when Nadal appeared to lose his grip.

40-0 to deuce, just like that.

In the next four points, Diego added a double fault and another backhand unforced error to lose his serve and Nadal found himself level at 2-2.

I am not much of a fan of anyone saying that there are “gifts” in tennis, but for someone who wanted to counter my argument, you should use that sequence at 2-1, 40-0 as an example and say that Rafa received a gift, rather than using the example of the rain delay. That sequence took place 13 minutes before the first rain delay. Imagine what could have happened in those 13 minutes, had Schwartzman grabbed the 3-1 lead as he should have. There is a difference between going into a rain delay leading 3-2 versus leading possibly 5-2 or 5-1.

In any case, that was the story of those extraordinary 101 minutes on that “one cloudy Wednesday afternoon.”

Nadal recognized more than once after the match that he was “a bit lucky yesterday because of the rain stop.”

“Of course the stop yesterday helps, because it was in a tough moment of my match. He was playing great, and I was playing too defensive.”

Nadal also gave some insight to what he changed after the rain delays:

“I had the feeling he has the control of the point too many times to have the chance to be successful,” he said. “And then I think after that I changed, I increased the intensity, increased the determination on how to play my shots. I won a little bit of court playing closer to the baseline, so the match change drastically, no?”

“I think after the first rain delay, the match changed a lot because I play more aggressive with high intensity and the things were more on my side. […] The changes were not the sun or the rain. It was within myself. Of course, the rain helped stop the match and helped me think about the match, and that’s a reality.”

Schwartzman, for his part, seemed to concur with everything that Nadal said:

“Yeah, the rain was not help nothing to me,” he said. “Yesterday I was doing many winners, not many unforced errors. He was not playing his best tennis. Maybe was the day when you can beat Rafa was yesterday. Today he start playing totally different. Aggressive, doing winners, no mistakes. So the match change a lot. So the rain was nothing good for me yesterday.”

Diego also confirmed what every player should understand at the end of the day:

“So these are moments that happen. I can’t complain about the rain. I had to continue the match today, and today he was better than me.”

It’s part of our sport and it is perfectly acceptable to say that a rain delay has helped one player or hurt the other, as long as nobody claims that it IS the main (or only) reason one won or lost.

Nobody can guarantee that Schwartzman would have won the match Wednesday had the rain not arrived or that Nadal was guaranteed to win Thursday once the match was interrupted.

Over the course of the full match, the better player won, as is the case with almost every match. That is the beauty of tennis. You do not get a lead and play for time to protect the lead and come out as the winner. You have to earn every point, through rain delays, downturns in your own form, or periods during which your opponent cannot seem to miss.

During the course of a full match, Rafael Nadal Parera seems to ace that “take-it-all-in-stride” test more than any other tennis player, year after year.

Image source: Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

 

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RG18

NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.

At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)

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RG18

WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.

“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.

Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.

Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.

We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.

Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.

The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.

More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.

Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.

Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.

Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.

2018 Roland Garros - 24 May

Both Images taken from – Jimmie 48

Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.

In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.

The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.

The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.

In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.

We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.

 

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RG18

Testigos de la grandeza

Saqib Ali

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Briana Foust

Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.

Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)

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